Penumbra (2011)

We’re leaving Buenos Aires in three days and I wanted to talk a little bit about this place where I’ve been for nearly four months. Until now I haven’t reviewed any Argentine films, largely because there really aren’t any that fit the theme of the blog. But while browsing Netflix I happened upon Penumbra, an Argentine supernatural (barely) thriller which, despite having a cover that looks like a Hostel ripoff, is actually sort of in keeping with the blog’s focus. Sort of.

The film is set in Buenos Aires and centers on a young lady from Spain named Marga, who is in town to rent an apartment she’s recently inherited. She meets a representative from the real estate agency outside, and they head upstairs to the nasty old apartment, very much a typical BsAs highrise (not that different, actually, from the one I’m sitting in at this very moment). Gradually more people from the real estate company show up, all claiming to be awaiting the arrival of the renter, Mr. Salva. Meanwhile, Marga complains nonstop about how crummy Argentina is, alienates the locals, befriends a sweet old lady and accidentally kills her fish, thereby totally destroying my record for most afternoon fun in Buenos Aires.

In fact, a large part of the movie’s screen time is dedicated to showing the audience what an awful person Marga is, how she’ll do nearly anything (and anyone) for money. She arranges at least two, possibly three trysts while waiting around the apartment for her prospective renter to show up–one of them with a colleague who threatens to blackmail her unless she meets him at his place, ahem–and takes  every opportunity to remark on how filthy Buenos Aires is. By the end of the film it’s hard not to hate her.

Pretty much a big old B.

Pretty much a big old B.

The gist of it, as is obvious from almost the moment “Mr. Salva” is first mentioned, is that the “realtors” are actually cult members planning some elaborate ritual that has to occur on this day (the day of a total eclipse) at this place (Marga’s apartment). There may be an explanation as to why her apartment is so important, but I missed it. But once Marga realizes their intentions, she tries to escape, zaps a guy with a stun gun, gets knocked around and tied up, and ends up being witness to the bad guys’ satanic sacrifice/suicide circle.

As cinema there’s little to comment on here. The acting is decent enough, for this type of film. The soundtrack is bizarre,  with strange upbeat bluesy pop instrumentals scattered through the film in a handful of random, incongruous moments. It’s very mediocre.

But the interesting thing, if you’ve spent any time in Buenos Aires, is the portrayal of the city as a pretty crappy place to be. The bitchy Spanish businesswoman Marga is an urbane outsider,  disgusted by the city’s filth and what she sees as the degeneracy of the  people following Argentina’s economic crisis. She acts on her disgust, ignoring a homeless man who begs for money and, when he gets aggressive, zapping him with her  stun gun. (I found the commentary here a bit too opaque to parse–yes, she was mean by ignoring him, but when he got in her face and called her a whore and turned violent, I thought the stun gun was justified.)

This was interesting, to me, because in some ways I sympathize with Marga. Because this is a dirty, struggling city. I’ve never seen this level of poverty before (naturally, as until now my travels have been limited to the UK, Canada, one city in Spain, and Ireland). On the subways children beg for money or hock candy or chewing gum. People sleep on old mattresses in doorways and parks, and folks somewhat disparagingly called cartoneros pull big wheelbarrow-style carts around, which they fill up with all the recyclable material they can dig out of your trash (and anything you throw out will be gone through). On the outskirts of the city are the villas, the shantytowns supposedly erected with mafia money where a large population of impoverished people live. People are struggling.

I don’t condone the way Marga treats people in the film, but I understand that it’s difficult to transition from a cushy, relatively economically-stable place to a country whose own currency is so worthless that people travel to Uruguay in droves in order to stockpile US dollars. It’s hard to have to admit feeling uncomfortable here. I’m an ethnographer, a person whose livelihood depends in no small part on being able to go places and sympathize with people. Part of ethnography, in fact, is being uncomfortable. It’s an important lesson in relativism. I realize too that it’s my position of privilege that makes it possible for me to experience this discomfort in the first place. None of this changes the fact that I’ll be very glad to be back in the US next week.

To get back to the film, then, the commentary Marga offers on BsAs is interesting because there’s some truth in it. But this commentary, which could have gone in cool directions, instead goes nowhere. Marga survives, the cult members kill themselves, but nobody will believe Marga’s story at the end (for reasons I won’t spoil, but it’s all fairly underwhelming). The last scene is of the homeless guy she tousled with laughing at her as she’s hauled off in a police car. So, I guess, crushing poverty wins?

Discussing it with my lady friend (the real expert on Argentine culture), she reminded me that at least one person here has told us in pretty dire terms about the strange religious cults that occasionally abduct people. And in nearby Colonia there were those warnings about Satanic cults on Halloween. I don’t know what truth there is in these rumors, if any, but as mi novia pointed out, the film could be playing to these fears as well.

Penumbra isn’t great, but there’s potential. It would be nice to see Argentine horror explore these themes more fully, and also maybe be scary.

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